Obama’s three great failures – Obamacare, the NSA scandal and Common Core - share some things deep in common. They represent the triumph of obsession with data, systems, process and unsupported theory over empirical wisdom, decency, humanity, democracy and community. And each is driven more by its economic advantage to a few than to its social benefits to the many.
While the hazards of the first two failures are finally getting the attention they deserve, it is still the unexamined Common Core that may ultimately do the most damage as it is endangering a whole generation of the young in a manner from which it will be difficult to recover. When was the last time we had a major government program that is, as one social worker reports, leading children to self mutilate, develop a hatred for school, throw tantrums, and have panic attacks, insomnia and suicidal thoughts?
This is not politics. It is madness,
And it represents a huge change in the cultural values of American leadership: from the humane to the robotic.
What is happening has nothing to do with Barack Obama’s skin color, has nothing to do with the scientific objectivity its backers claim, and has little to do with ideology (except that the robotic programmers of life tend to be Democrats). In fact, you can find its echoes in other places such as non-profits with executive directors imitating corporate CEOs and laying rigid systems atop complex communities.
The danger has been long with us.The Swedith author and journalist of the 1940s, Sig Dagemen, put it this way: "I believe that man's natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself."
To be sure Republicans increasingly are dedicated to killing policies while the Democrats seem devoted to mangling them, but this is not really a political conflict so much as a major cultural shift, one I described this way a while back:
About sixty years ago, America was just a decade past the last war it would ever win. The length of the average work week was down significantly from the 1930s but real income had been soaring and would continue do so through the 1970s. We had a positive trade balance and the share of total income gained by the top 1% of the country was only around 8%, down from 24% in the 1930s.
As Jermie D. Cullip describes it:
"By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year's recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. The boom was so great that the budget for 1956 predicted a surplus of $4.1 billion. With the surges in production and the economy, the 1950s is often recognized as the decade that eliminated poverty for the great majority of Americans. Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'"
All in all not a bad decade to be in if you were running a business. So much so, in fact, that some began griping about it all in books like The Organization Man and plays like Death of a Salesman.It has now gotten completely out of hand. In over fifty years of covering politics – mostly in Washington – I have never seen legislation of purported good works so atrociously assembled as Obamacare. I have never seen the willful violation of constitutional principles so broadly accepted as in the NSA scandal and I have never seen children made such victims of corporate convenience as with Common Core.
But here is the truly amazing part - given all we have been taught in recent years: America did it even as its universities were turning out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.
By 2005 these schools graduated 142,000 MBAs in one year.
And it was not just business school graduates that were the problem. In 2009, the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in Washington…
It was a given until recent times, that from a political point of view, understanding law or economics or business was a valuable asset but one that fell far behind social intelligence upon which successful politics relied. As my father, a lawyer who worked in the New Deal, would tell my buddies, “Go to law school, then do something else.” Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t as gracious towards the academic elites: “"I took economics courses in college for four years, and everything I was taught was wrong."
Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy…
Key to [a career like Obama’s] is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear.
Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.
Another example of gradocracy is what has happened to public education. A two hundred year old hallmark of American democracy is now being dismantled for a combination of corrupt profit and distorted theory. Data collection – i.e. standardized tests – has taken time previously used for history, civics, and other things that gave mere facts some context. And taken time away from sports or theater, things that forced one to apply skill and knowledge in a cooperative manner.
Theory – subject to no testing at all - has replaced empirical wisdom. And teachers have been reduced to minor bureaucrats dutifully fulfilling procedures of dubious or destructive value. Add to this the corrupt goals of the education industry that is driving the war on public education and you have one of the most profound examples of child abuse that we have known.
It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth….
We have been taken over by legal lemmings, process perverts, and data drones.
If you study evil governments – from fascism to wretched royalties to 1984 – what you find repeatedly are complex, controlling and destructive systems overwhelming humanity, community, democracy and decency.
It’s the danger we face right now – from over tested first graders to people unable to find decent healthcare at a decent cost, to innocent citizens having their phones and computers tapped.
Barack Obama is our first president to be raised in an elite society that believes in the virtue of such soulless systems. He is not evil; he and his colleges have simply been educated to trust in such systems and they have the degrees to prove it. If you watch the small stuff – his lack of buddies, his inability to socialize with other politicians, his insistently pedantic speeches –you will find the clues of someone who has learned to trust what is on paper and in computers than who is sitting in the chair beside him.
And he is not alone. The day of the politician of high social intelligence, who put people ahead of process, deals ahead of data and sense ahead of systems seems largely gone. And we’ll have to fight to get it back because an increasing number of those at the top no longer think such things matter.